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04/19/2007


Bryan Cranston Goes ‘All the Way’ On Broadway As Lyndon B. Johnson: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

If the finales of House of Cards and Breaking Bad have left a deficiency of political intrigue and binge-worthy Bryan Cranston in your entertainment diet, All the Way, which opened on Broadway March 6 at the Neil Simon Theatre, may go at least part way toward filling the void — depending on your stamina and appetite for American history.

1880Robert Schenkkan’s play, in which Cranston tackles another sort of anti-hero as Lyndon B. Johnson, spans the president’s assumption of office following JFK’s assassination in 1963 to his landslide reelection the following year. During that brief time, Schenkkan shows an LBJ as gruff as he is charismatic, strong-arming the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (initiated by his predecessor) into law with far more pragmatism than passion.

Making his Broadway debut after performing the role at American Repertory Theatre last fall, Cranston barrels through the dense, detail-laden drama with a masterful presence. His LBJ governs with a thick Texas drawl (more commanding than it is charming, though it’s often both), and a shifty swagger that betrays the vulnerability beneath his power-hungry veneer.

0983For all of LBJ’s cold political maneuvering, Cranston always manages to keep the president’s humanity pulsing close to the surface, opaque as that surface may sometimes appear to be. The actor’s unique, subtle manner of evoking sympathy and disdain in the same beat, so brilliantly distilled in his performance as Breaking Bad’s Walter White, translates powerfully to the stage.

Many actors in the sizeable ensemble play multiple characters, and director Bill Rauch does a fine job of keeping political details clear. Though, as with any historical drama that has an obvious outcome, keeping tensions high is key (we already know, in this case, who ends up on the wrong side of this civil rights debate). Clocking in at nearly three hours, Rauch’s production doesn’t always rise above the level of animated history lesson. 

Particularly in the play’s first act, which deals mostly with the politics of passing the Civil Rights Act and the shifting tide of Johnson’s relationships with Martin Luther King Jr. (a fine Brandon J. Dirden) and other key figures, Schenkkan’s writing is both utilitarian and laced with short-order political jargon—more fitting for historical reenactment than nuanced narrative.

0736The play’s second act proves more engaging, with Johnson’s intense focus on reelection set against popular uprisings and the specter of impending disaster in Vietnam. An outbreak of racial violence, highlighted by the deaths of three young volunteers during Freedom Summer, a project to register black voters, raises the stakes and lends emotional heft to the play’s conclusion. Stripping away the politician’s bravado, Cranston lays bare Johnson’s deepest insecurities in a quietly stunning emotional climax.

The messy clash of social ideals with political realities will always be a timely and relevant story, all the more effective the more compellingly it’s told. All the Way sets itself an ambitious goal; having Cranston in the cockpit certainly proves a great place to start, even if Schenkkan’s drama doesn’t quite go the titular distance. 

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: evgenia eliseeva)


Possessed Puppet Satire 'Hand to God' Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The titular appendage in Hand to God, playwright Robert Askins’ wickedly funny comedy that opened Off Broadway last night at the Lucille Lortel theatre, goes by the name of Tyrone. He delivers some of the most apt criticism of western religion you’re ever likely to hear, and has zero tolerance for B.S.—including from the hand that wears him. A sharp-tongued (and awesomely foul mouthed) sock puppet, Tyrone may or may not in fact be possessed by the devil.

HandToGod290_1Askin’s play, which returns Off Broadway in an MCC production after an acclaimed run at Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011, is set in a small Texas town where a few teenage kids meet at the local ministry to rehearse a puppet pageant and stay out of trouble. Jason and his mother Margery (who runs the puppet group) are both reeling from the recent loss of his father to a heart attack. For Marge, running the group seems like a much-needed distraction, for Jason and his puppet Tyrone it’s a lot more than just that.

Aside from his recent loss, Jason is a shy, quiet type and giving voice to his puppet helps raise the volume on his own. Tyrone starts out like the devil on Jason’s shoulder, a wisecracking voice for thoughts the boy might not otherwise say himself. It’s how he first connects with Jessica (Sarah Stiles) the girl he likes in class, and later how he lashes back at Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) his cocky, oversexed rival.

But it quickly becomes clear Tyrone has a mind of his own, or at least a will separate from Jason’s, who can’t just take him off as he pleases. By the play’s second act, blood is drawn, puppet sex is had and it seems an exorcism may be in order. Yet still, his puppet’s violent temper and wild libido are qualities Jason could use himself in moderation—courage to stand up for himself and the nerve to get the girl.

HandToGod193_1Actor Steven Boyer reprises his mind-boggling and Obie-award-winning performance as Jason (and Tyrone), spending much of the play in conversation with his own left hand—from acting out an Abbot and Costello routine to impress Jessica, to full on hand-to-sock combat. Jason and Tyrone are so distinct in personality and their two-way dialogue is so convincing, half the time it’s actually hard to believe you’re watching just one performance.

Joining Boyer from the 2011 cast, Geneva Carr is excellent as Marge, who doesn’t get along with the other church mothers, finding herself stuck in a role she never felt fit to play. She attracts equally ardent attention from Pastor Greg who oversees the church (an always charming Marc Kudisch), and hormonal Timothy, making her the apex of a twisted (and surprisingly athletic) love triangle.

HandToGod018_1Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel keeps action moving swiftly with careful attention to detail and draws out incredible performances and puppetry from the winning company. Often shockingly funny, the play's disarming humor makes its dark conclusions all the more startling. 

We’re accustomed to puppets who have something to teach us, like the difference between good and evil. Tyrone's lesson that the two go hand-in-hand is likely to stick around in your mind longer than most.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)


New Musical 'The Bridges of Madison County' Opens On Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

If the idea of a musical adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County sends your eyes to the back of your head, director Bartlett Sher’s Broadway production, which opened on Thursday at the Schoenfeld Theatre starring the peerless Kelli O’Hara, will not only dispel your reasonable cynicism—it will likely take your breath away along with it. With music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last Five Years) and book by Marsha Norman (‘night Mother, The Secret Garden), it is one of the most beautifully sung love stories on Broadway in years.

Bridges285Like the Clint Eastwood 1995 film adaptation starring Eastwood and Meryl Streep (Oscar nominated for her performance, of course), the musical is based on the best-selling novel by Robert James Waller. It tells of a whirlwind 4-day affair in 1965 between Francesa, an Italian immigrant turned Iowa housewife and Robert, a world-traveled photographer on assignment taking snaps of the covered bridges of Madison County for National Geographic.

On the surface it seems like typical paperback fodder for a Harlequin romance, and in Eastwood’s hands — despite his earnest artistry and Meryl being, well, Meryl —  amounts to little more. But in Sher’s production, the affair to remember is at once vividly intimate and shaded with broader themes that resonate deeply in Brown’s lovely score.

Bridges447The show opens with O’Hara as Francesa (giving a career performance in what is already an illustrious one) singing about her immigrant journey, from growing up in Napoli to starting a family in Iowa.  Refreshingly simple sets by designer Michael Yeargan float into view as darkness is replaced by a simple home, and the distinct sense that Francesa is a fish out of water.

Her husband Bud (Hunter Foster, excellent), and children Carolyn and Michael (Caitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena) are packing up for a trip to the state fair, while Francesca stays contently behind. Shortly after their departure, Robert (Steven Pasquale) drives up to the house looking for directions to the last bridge he is to photograph for his assignment.

What begins as an offer to ride along and give directions turns into an invitation inside to cool off afterward, followed by supper, and soon the inevitability of an affair that is the only true love each of them will know in their lifetime.

Bridges264Brown makes sentiments that could easily sound clichéd ring poetic instead, in music that exhibits both operatic and more down-home influences. Songs about time and distance articulate the lovers’ romance — how far each of them has traveled to meet (in this of all places), how long it’s taken them to reach each other, how little time they have together. And later, songs about seeing and being seen express the potential for loneliness while being surrounded by (supportive yet prying) neighbors, and of feeling invisible until discovered by a great love.

Pasquale, who also played opposite O’Hara in Far From Heaven Off Broadway last summer, makes a strong Broadway musical debut, and the two work wonderfully together. Other standouts in the company include Cass Morgan as Francesa’s endearingly nosey neighbor Marge, and Michael X. Martin as her devoted husband.

Previous Broadway collaborations between Sher and O’Hara have been no less captivating, including the recent acclaimed revival of South Pacific, and The Light in the Piazza several years before (in which Pasquale played the leading man out of town, but was unavailable when the show came to Broadway). Seeing all three come together is almost as thrilling as the long weekend affair—though certainly more fruitful.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)


Pulitzer Prize Winning ‘Dinner With Friends’ Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

You don’t have to be married (or straight) to appreciate the compelling insights into intimacy and all manner of relationships revealed by Donald Margulies in his 2000 Pulitzer Prize winning play Dinner With Friends, which opened Off Broadway last night in a revival at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre.

In fact, anyone in a rush to reach the altar might do well to consider Margulies’ provocative questions about the coveted social institution. Nearly 15 years after its New York premiere, the play takes on a sort of fresh relevance given marriage is a novel (and hard won) right for a growing segment of the population.

DWF Hinkle, Shamos 0090For the two couples on stage, marriage is not so much a choice as a matter of course—which is perhaps part of the problem. The play opens with Gabe (Jeremy Shamos) and Karen (Marin Hinkle), an almost gratingly perfect couple, tripping to finish each other’s sentences while describing a recent dream trip to Rome for their distracted friend and dinner guest Beth (Heather Burns).

The meal has just been cleared (Gabe and Karen aren’t just foodies, they’re food writers), the kids are upstairs with ice cream and a movie, when Beth finally spills a confession—her husband Tom (Darren Pettie) is leaving her for another woman. Beth and Tom aren’t just their best friends; Gabe and Karen set them up 12 years earlier (a scene we’ll see later), so the news strikes a particular blow. 

What follows is the swift unraveling of one relationship and a slow burning, penetrating examination of another. More than the minutia of what makes some relationships succeed or fail, Margulies uncovers the subconscious roles in which we cast friends and loved ones in the interest of self-preservation.

DWF Pettie, Shamos 9457Gabe was counting on Tom to be his partner in expanding waistlines and matrimonial bellyaching. Karen counts on Beth to be a mess she can help clean up. Any shift in these roles feels like a free fall, raising unnerving questions about their own life choices that Gabe and Karen seem at a loss to answer.

Direction by Pam MacKinnon (Tony winner for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), though markedly staid in physical action, brings out fine performances from the cast of four. Shamos (The Assembled Parties) is a particular standout, his affluent New England intellectual the perfect blend of undisclosed yearning and neurotic ennui.

Scenic design by Allen Moyer emphasizes the beige of middle age with blank canvas walls, which fill with vibrant color for the play’s single flashback to Martha’s Vineyard, where newly wed Gabe and Karen introduce their ill-fated friends. Though fitting, the broad-stroaked design is hardly necessary, the play's subtle brilliance speaks clearly on its own.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: jeremy daniel)


Hugh Jackman to Host Tony Awards: VIDEO

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Yesterday afternoon, Hugh Jackman announced that he would be announcing the Tony Awards on June 8 at Radio City Music Hall.

Last year's host, Neil Patrick Harris, who is busy preparing for the leading role in the revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, took the news in stride, despite some taunting from Jackman.

Tweeted NPH: "I'm so proud of @RealHughJackman for hosting this year's Tony Awards and for calling me an hour ago to say, 'Suck it!'"

Watch Jackman's video, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Drag Impresario Charles Busch Dolls Up For 'The Tribute Artist': INTERVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The preeminent queen of drag theatre, Charles Busch returns to the New York stage this week with his new comedy The Tribute Artist, in which he plays a female impersonator taking on the role of a lifetime—that of a dear, deceased friend. Opening Off Broadway on Sunday, February 9th at Primary Stages, it’s the latest in the playwright’s lineup of comedic plays in which he also performs a role in drag.

Charles Busch NEWEST headshot 1.20.14For thirty years Busch has been known for his distinct brand of high camp style and the easy charisma with which he embodies female characters, many inspired by legendary Hollywood stars. In his latest, Busch plays Jimmy, a down on his luck Vegas ‘celebrity tribute artist,’ whose glamorous old friend dies in her sleep leaving no will behind. Jimmy hatches a plan to impersonate his late friend in order to hang on to her West Village townhouse.

I spoke to Charles about his work on the new show, the future of drag, and why not every gay man needs to love Judy Garland.

Naveen Kumar: Can you tell me a bit about where you got the idea for this play?

Charles Busch: Over the years I’ve been writing two kinds of plays: one the sort of drag, camp, movie parody play and the other a more traditional New York comedy like The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. I thought it’d be interesting to try to find a middle ground between the two, so I was in search of a story that would be camp and sort of real at the same time.

Of course, living in New York City, I’m surrounded by friends who are in desperate straits trying to find a place to live in Manhattan. It’s just this terrible catch-22 with all sorts of rules and regulations. So, the real estate dilemma put it all together.

Cynthia Harris, Charles Busch339Also, I had never done a story where I was posing as a woman. I’ve made a career out of playing female characters, but I’ve never actually done a show where I was a man posing as a woman. I thought that would be a fun twist, and wanted to see what I could bring to it that was fresh.

It’s a centuries old theatrical convention. All the popular movies—Tootsie, Some Like It Hot, Mrs. Doubtfire—are really about a resolutely heterosexual man forced into playing a female part, which he’s never done before. The comedy comes from his struggle to be feminine and the big difference between men and women. The sort of sexy part of the story is when another straight man is attracted to the straight guy in drag, and there’s a certain amount of homosexual panic.

I’ve been discovering that the interesting part of this play for me, particularly as an actor, is that there’s so little difference between my character and the impersonation he’s doing. His sexuality is so androgynous that he’s able to slip into the female role very effortlessly, and we take it from there.

Read more, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "Drag Impresario Charles Busch Dolls Up For 'The Tribute Artist': INTERVIEW" »


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